Any movie that causes you to roll your eyes more often than it induces an audible laugh is generally considered a failure, especially if said movie is a comedy. Hot Pursuit, an action-comedy portioned like a mild rye and cola, does not lack for idiotic moments early on, like when our born and raised Texan protagonist can’t recognize a longhorn tattoo. In fact, it only gets dumber the longer it goes, forgoing any legwork that explains how certain characters arrive in situations, and why it is those situations escalate to 11 without a moment’s hesitation.
At one point, stars Reese Witherspoon and Sophia Vergara avoid a police roadblock by getting under a rug and donning decoy antlers, so as to pass themselves off as a deer, Halloween horse-style. There’s also an extended bit where the stars pretend to be lovers, and share an awkward attempted-makeout session to distract a gun-totting redneck. A controlling stake of the jokes are invested in Vergara’s age, and Witherspoon’s small stature. Make no mistake: Hot Pursuit is a rote, dumb comedy. But there are many rote, dumb comedies every year, and Hot Pursuit is certainly among the more innocuous to be found in such forgettable company.
This owes entirely to the presence of Witherspoon and Vergara, and the direction of Anne Fletcher. The script for Hot Pursuit does the above parties very few favors. Tasked with writing Midnight Run in Heels, scripters David Feeney and John Quaintance deliver just that: a “mismatched buddies on the run” caper that sees Witherspoon’s straight-arrow Officer Cooper tasked with bringing Vergara’s Daniella Riva to a Dallas police station. Riva’s cartel accountant husband is set to testify against a drug kingpin. When some corrupt cops murder Mr. Riva, Cooper has to outwit her pursuers while wrangling the uncooperative Mrs. Riva.
Vergara is the loudmouth and vain Duchess to Charles Grodin’s wry Duke from the 1988 film, which remains a high watermark of the crime-romp-on-the-road genre. It’s Witherspoon as the straight man who has a better chance with such weak material. Her commitment to the bit makes Cooper’s uptight mannerisms (which include constantly reciting penal codes and calculating arrival times) funnier than they’d be if delivered by an actress more willing to mock the character. If nothing else, Hot Pursuit does make the case for a great comedy to be made starring Witherspoon and Amy Poehler as overly earnest, petite blonde women doing shtick.
Hot Pursuit never builds up a head of steam, but simmers quietly (emotionally, not audibly) on the high-energy chemistry of its stars. Vergara and Witherspoon play nicely off one another through every down, up, setback, and triumph of the duo’s predictable relationship. The jokes in-between are often obsessed with the physical characteristics of the actresses. There’s a lot of Vergara strutting her stuff for comic/plot effect, and the film would really like you to know that Witherspoon is tiny (as someone who is 6 3’, it probably doesn’t say great things about me that I chuckled a few times at instances of the latter).
But an occasionally clever bit, like a detailed discussion of menstrual biology as an excuse to escape a potentially dangerous situation, sneaks through now and then. It’s often Fletcher’s restraint that allows Hot Pursuit to get by as flatly distracting, rather than outright irritating. She doesn’t overplay her hand when it comes to the action scenes, which are small scale and infrequent. More importantly, even most of the bad gags in the film are built for efficiency, as though she knows when she’s been handed a dud, and reacts accordingly by tossing it out as quickly as possible.
Again, let’s not forget that we’re talking about a movie about as sharp intellectually as it is comically: the finale hinges on a fairly nonsensical plot twist, and Witherspoon’s ability to pass herself off as a 13-year-old boy. But that Hot Pursuit never aspires to anything outside its featherweight station is maybe its most commendable choice: you won’t find any of the pantomimed sentimentality of Unfinished Business, or lazy spite of Horrible Bosses 2 here.
What sourness Hot Pursuit has to offer is kept to its limited imagination as to what role a Latino character can fill in the story, and an ending to that story that’s a giant shrug at one character’s established identity. In chasing down a thoughtless happy ending, Hot Pursuit proves too dogged. But that’s the way these movies go, and if you can come out of one not feeling insulted or aggravated, that’s a minor sort of win.
Small ambitions, small laughs, and small jokes define Hot Pursuit’s tour through well-worn territory.